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Get Ready, HR: Workers Are Watching Olympics
But productivity might not suffer a knockout

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin  7/18/2012
 

The 2012 Summer Olympics offers a technologically unprecedented opportunity for workers to plug in and slack off to watch live-streaming games on smart phones, tablets or company computers. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the London games, which began July 27, will hurt productivity much more than previous Olympics.

No doubt employees will take time on the job to click and follow gymnastics, swimming, track and field, or any other of the 305 events from 32 sports through Aug. 12. NBC said it will be streaming all of them live on NBCOlympics.com, starting with early-round women’s soccer two days before the opening ceremony.

Challenger Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement consulting firm, places the Olympics among the top productivity-sapping sports events, and notes that live streaming and fast Internet connections make it easy to watch at the office. The firm, however, sees the boundaries between work and personal life disappearing, and said companies are starting to measure productivity in quality and quantity of work,  not in undistracted hours clocked at the office.

Employees Will Dive In

With NBC and Facebook joining forces to foster viewership and social media discussion of the games, it might be hard for even the most diligent employees to resist taking an Olympics break. On the other hand, the big time difference between London and the United States, and the tradition of evening Olympics-viewing with family and friends on network television, could keep productivity during work hours from taking a 10-meter dive.

“I think from a technology standpoint it’s going to be easier than ever to watch the Olympics from work” instead of working, technology forecaster Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research, said. “When I take in the human factor, I think we’re not going to see a major problem.”

Burrus said the 2012 Summer Olympics will be “a major event for smart phones and tablets,” for athletes as well as viewers.

Members of the Singapore Olympics team  are being equipped with Galaxy S3 smart phones so they can tweet and post Facebook updates from the event, he said. “They’re getting a flag and they’re getting a smart phone.”

More significantly, British Telecom has assembled the world’s largest high-density WiFi network to handle all the Facebooking, tweeting and photo- and video-sharing by Olympians and fans. The network’s capacity is seven times that of the Beijing Olympics four years ago, Burrus said.

The BBC has prepared “massive streaming of events live,” he said. “For the first time, you can see the event live and replay it if you want to.”

In addition, many Olympics apps are being created for iPhones and Android systems, including those being coordinated with watchmaker Omega, the official Olympics timekeeper, for posting results, Burrus noted. Omega will be posting live results on its website.

“It will be easier than ever to be able to see what’s going on live and on the spot, and there will be many workers tempted,” Burrus said. During the Beijing Olympics, however, people preferred “the excitement and thrill” of watching at home on big TV screens—even if they already knew the results, he said. Sports are a social event to share with family and friends, and people enjoy the background stories, higher production values and network hype they get when watching at home, he said.

Balance Has a Role

All that live streaming at work might cause server sluggishness and, of course, it would be a problem if work came to a halt, noted Challenger Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger.

Challenger, however, views the Olympics and productivity in the context of larger workplace changes. With advanced technology, “the idea of the 9-to-5 workday is just being shattered,” he said. “The boundaries that used to exist between work and home, or work and personal life … are evaporating before us.”

Smart companies measure productivity by the work done, he said. If an employee watches an Olympics event in the office and does work that night at home, it might be a wash. Challenger noted, however, that many companies continue to operate psychologically under the old time-clock model.

The Olympics can help business, too. As the world becomes more global, Challenger said, the Olympics are a way for companies to relate to customers and suppliers in other countries.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.

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